3 Tips for Increasing Compliance in Children on the Autism Spectrum

Children with developmental disabilities, such as autism, often struggle to comply with the many requests of parents, educators, and other caregivers.  This can make everyday activities and routines challenging.  Fortunately, there are simple strategies that will significantly improve the child’s ability and willingness to comply.

What are Non-Compliance and Compliance

Non-compliance is the failure of a child to follow an instruction they’ve been given within a specific period of time. Compliance is the opposite of that where a child does follow a direction within a particular period of time.  It is crucial to address non-compliance early because it can escalate into aggression and other problem behaviors, and it makes life difficult for everyone.

Why Children With Autism Have Difficulty With Compliance

Children on the autism spectrum can struggle with compliance for many different reasons. These children often hyper-focus on what they are doing.  For example, if a parent requests their child to come to the table to eat dinner and the child is fully engaged in an activity, such as putting together a puzzle, the child may not easily comply.  Also, children with autism often function in very rigid routines.  If they are accustomed to bathing immediately after dinner, but you need them to pick up toys first, they may not easily comply.  Also, lagging skills in areas such a frustration tolerance and transitioning can add even more complex layers.

Types of Non-Compliance

To help children overcome resistance to comply with requests, it is helpful to know the different types of non-compliance.

  • Passive – The child simply doesn’t do what they’ve been asked and may appear as if they are ignoring the request.
  • Refusal – The child verbally or nonverbally responds in some way they won’t comply.
  • Direct Defiance – The child may meltdown or become aggressive when given a request.
  • Negotiation – The child may attempt to bargain or negotiate either by modifying the request, asking to complete it at a later time, or after they do what they want to first.

What Not to Do

  • Do not stop expecting compliance with your request.  If you’ve made a request, you must expect the child to comply every time.
  • Do not make threats/punish. Threats and punishment will not increase compliance and often escalate the situation causing aggressive behaviors and emotional meltdowns.

What To Do

How to structure a request

  • Requests should be a single step using clear and concise language. Most children with autism have some degree of speech and/or communication challenges.  Rather than, “It is time to stop drawing, put the crayons away and go get your pajamas for your bath,” say, “Go get your pajamas.”
  • Requests should be made within close proximity to the child.  Yelling a request to a from across the room isn’t likely to encourage compliance.  Go to the child and give the request.
  • Ask the child to repeat the request.  Whether verbally, using a communication device, or using visual aides, this ensures the child knows the expectation.

3 Strategies for Increasing Compliance

  1. Tell Don’t Ask – Parents often make the mistake of asking a child to do something they expect the child. Asking, “Are you ready for dinner?” leaves an option for a child to say, “No.” Instead, use simple, one step, statements. “It is time to come to the table.” Now the request is a clear direction, not something that is optional.
  2. Give Choices – Choices can exponentially increase compliance. For example, if a child is non-compliant with toothbrushing, “Do you want to use your Spiderman toothbrush or your Hulk toothbrush?” Now the child feels in control of the situation because they have options.
  3. First/Then – This strategy can be beneficial, provided the child is not allowed to reverse the order.  It should be structured, so the request from the adult is first (often a non-preferred activity) followed by what the child wants to do (a preferred activity.) For example, “First pick up the toys, then you can watch the movie.” Often parents allow a child to negotiate what they want first.  That takes the motivation away from the child to later comply.

These strategies, when used effectively and consistently, can significantly increase the amount of compliance in children with autism and other related developmental disabilities.

If you liked this post, check out the accompanying podcast episode.  It covers the same content while providing multiple real-world examples. Podcast 10: Increasing Compliance in Children with ADHD and ASD

Children do well if they can…if they can’t, we the adults, need to figure out what is getting in their way so we can help. – Dr. Ross Greene “The Explosive Child”

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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 3-30! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with 20 years experience, a freelance writer, and special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.

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